What s up, IGAU

the latest in the long list of controversies regarding the loss of India's biological wealth is from the state of Chhattisgarh. The media is abuzz with reports on the proposed collaboration between Raipur-based Indira Gandhi Agricultural University (igau) and Syngenta, one of the world's biggest agriculture companies. The controversy revolves around a deal to transfer the germplasm database of more than 19,000 varieties of rice from the university to the company.

R H Richharia, a renowned rice expert who died in 1996, had painstakingly collected these varieties in the 1970s from farmers in Madhya Pradesh (now in Chhattisgarh). The state has one of the richest rice tracts in the world. igau possesses one of the most enviable collections of rice germplasm on the planet, reported to be second only to the International Rice Research Institute (irri), Manila.

The university's recent move has incited voluntary groups. They say that the deal would have violated the International Convention on Biodiversity (cbd). The convention stated in 1993, for the first time ever, that biological diversity is the property of the respective country.

Details about the proposed deal were first reported on November 9 in the Raipur edition of Dainik Bhaskar , a Hindi daily. It reported that the deal entailed cooperation in creating drought-resistant rice varieties. The deal was that when Syngenta markets this variety, igau would get a royalty. The daily reported on a meeting held at the university on October 23 with Syngenta representatives, wherein a memorandum of understanding was to be signed. This wasn't signed after some scientists objected to it.

With the media across the country following the story, the university was under a lot of pressure to come clean. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (icar) and the governor of Chhattisgarh, Dinesh Nand Sahai, asked the university to explain the nature of the collaboration. In a press conference Patil said that no germplasm had exchanged hands yet. When contacted by Down To Earth , Patil took the oft-repeated line that the controversy was part of a conspiracy to discredit him. He said the deal did not involve transfer of germplasm; merely sharing it.

Several experts point out that it is impossible to keep the genetic information within India after a multinational company has access to it. In fact, in the 1980s, a copy of the Raipur collection was sent to irri, from where it went to the us department of agriculture.

The furore raises questions about the legal mechanism for protecting India's biodiversity. At present there are two legislations for this: the Plant Varieties Protection and Farmers' Rights Act (pvpfr), passed in September 2001 and the Biodiversity Bill, passed recently. Rules for pvpfr haven't been notified as yet, and it would take time to work out the specifics of the Biodiversity Bill.

What if you want to export/import germplasm or share it for research with an international body? The National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (nbpgr), New Delhi, is the nodal agency for such clearances, although the legal details of this are not clear. The bureau, for its part, facilitates clearances from specialist bodies